UK: A hidden danger comes to light after chemical leak closes the river Humber to shipping

Humber skippers were ordered to haul to for fear of breathing corrosive gas PHOTO: WIEBE POSTHUMA


A curious reticence attends the reporting of the leak of a large quantity of titanium tetrachloride from “a chemical factory” in Stallingborough in North-East Lincolnshire.
The leak was serious enough to have caused local authorities to halt shipping on the Humber river, but not even the BBC reported its source, which was Millenium Inorganic Chemicals, owned by US chemical giant Lyondell.
A spokesman at Humber Chemical Focus, an industry body representing many dozen chemical companies clustered around the estuary said that investigations into the leak had barely begun, that there were no reports so far of any injuries and that the amount of titanium tetrachloride gas that escaped was “in the low hundreds of kilograms”.
Titanium tetrachloride, TiCl4, is an intermediate in the manufacture of titanium dioxide, a whitening agent widely used in paints and pigments. It is an unusual example of a liquid metal halide, and it fumes spectacularly in air. TiCl4 is also called, light-heartedly, ‘Tickle’ or ‘Tickle-four’ by those that use this chemical. Despite this gentle pet name the chemical is extremely corrosive, combining explosively with water to release hydrochloric acid, HCl. The dense white, light-scattering clouds it forms on contact with water were once used in naval smokescreens, but the use of TiCl4 was discontinued because of its extreme corrosiveness.
Inhaling titanium tetrachloride can cause damage to the eyes and lungs. According to the US The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), persons with bronchitis, pneumoconiosis, bronchial asthma, pulmonary tuberculosis, and diseases of the upper respiratory tract are at risk because of the toxic nature of titanium tetrachloride fumes. (Source: ATSDR advisory)
Humber Chemical Focus publishes an emergency advice booklet for people living in Stallingborough which contains the following bland reassurance about Millenium Inorganic Chemicals:
In the unlikely event of a major emergency, the site has an established and effective emergency plan, combined with the experience and trained personnel, the impact on people and the environment will be minimal. The major hazard to people is from the airborne release of titanium tetrachloride and chlorine fume. Although a release of either of these substances is extremely unlikely, such a release could result in a gas cloud that could be harmful if breathed in.
When questioned, the Humber Chemical Focus spokesman appeared to have little idea of what had or had not been done to warn local people, and referred enquirers to the company’s website. Searches of the Lyondell and Millenium websites revealed no reference to the incident, nor any instructions and advice to those who might have been affected.
Responsible Care?
Millenium Inorganic Chemicals says it regards the chemical industry’s “Responsible Care” programme as so important that it has its own section on the company’s website. In March 1998 the company also began a B-Safe training programme among staff. However just over a year later it was taken to court by the UK Health & Safety Executive for two separate safety offences and was fined a total of £60,000. There is no mention of these breaches in the company’s “Responsible Care” report which, published in 2002, is now four years out of date.
In the United States Millenium Inorganic Chemicals is implicated in a lawsuit filed by the State of Rhode Island against paint manufacturers who used lead in their products, thus exposing families to the risk of lead poisoning. In a landmark victory for the families, the companies, including Millenium were found liable for poisoning thousands of children.
The danger of dioxins
In 2003 the US Environment Protection Agency [EPA] listed two Millenium Inorganic Chemicals sites among the top 10 chemical facilities releasing dioxins and dioxin-like compounds into the environment. (Source: “Walking the Talk”, report by PACE/United Steelworkers of America)
The Millenium factory at Stallingborough on the Humber provides a chart of its emissions to the environment over the period 1997-2002. The chart shows a steady increase of emissions to land but does not say what these, or the emissions to air and water, contained.
It is important to know what was in these emissions. A DuPont factory in California using the “dirty chlorine process” also used by Millenium to make titanium dioxide, was found to have lethally contaminated the surrounding environment:
DuPont closed a TiO2 plant in Oakley, California around 1997. State regulators discovered the soil and ground water at the site is contaminated with many contaminants proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Contaminants include CFCs and lead from the production of banned substances, Freon and tetraethyl lead. Currently, DuPont is making a deal to erect a $200 million TiO2 facility in the Shandong province in China, which is expected to employ 400 Chinese workers.69 DuPont also has a TiO2 plant in Altamira, Mexico. DuPont’s “extraordinarily dirty process” (using chlorine) once conducted in Oakley, may also result in dioxin contamination at these foreign sites and could soon be transferred to China.(ibid)
In the light of these precedents, the investigation at Millenium Inorganic Chemicals in Stallingborough should not be confined to the recent leak of titanium tetrachloride, but should extend to a thorough examination of air, soil and water surrounding the site for the presence of deadly dioxins.

Share this:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.